Date varies. Begins March 19, 2011.

It’s the day that puts the ‘holi’ in holiday. Holi literally translates to “burning”, but fire isn’t the most prominent image of the festival. Holi is all about color. Colored powders, colored waters fly through the air as celebrants young and old ‘colorize’ the world around them—by flinging powders and streams at their friends, neighbors, and any passersby.

Holi is a joyous celebration, though somehow the editor of the piece below has spliced it into a Bollywood horror film. (Are there Bollywood horror films?) I can hear the Hollywood producers pitching it now… Slumdog Millionaire meets 28 Days Later.

Do NOT wear your best clothes on Holi as the video below demonstrates.

Holi Festival: Street Action

Other Holi festivities are more ceremonial, but the words “muted” and “tame” don’t fit into any of them.

Holi is a Spring celebration. One legend corelates the holiday with an evil king named Hiranyakashipu. The king forbade his son Prahlad from worshipping the god Vishnu. Prahlad refused to do so, so the king challenged Prahlad to sit with Prahlad’s wicked aunt Holika—who was believed to be impervious to fire—on a burning pyre.  To everyone’s surprise, it was Holika that burned and not Prahlad, who remained unharmed.

During Holi, the rules that govern Hindu society throughout the year are somewhat relaxed. Class, caste, status and gender become secondary distinctions to the bright magenta, orange, red, green and every-other-color-of-the-rainbow powders covering everyone’s skin and clothes.

Holi falls on the full moon of the month of Phalguna.


Maha Shivaratri

Date varies. New moon (13th) of Phalgun.

February 20, 2012

March 10, 2013

Give it up to Shiva today. The new moon of Phalgun (that’s today) is known as Maha Shivaratri in the Hindu religion. To the adherents of Shaivism, who worship Shiva as their primary god, today is the holiest day of the year.

Shiva gets a misleading rap as The Destroyer. It sounds cool and daunting, but is only half accurate. Being the Destroyer, Shiva is also the agent of transformation and dissolution that makes recreation possible.

Shiva’s often pictured as blue.  One time Indra was trying to regain his wealth and prosperity—taken by an angry sage. Brahma suggested churning the Ocean of Milk to create the “Nectar of Immortality.” But during the churning of the Ocean, a great poison called Halahala was released, deadly to all living things upon the earth. Shiva was summoned to save the world by drinking the Halahala. He wasn’t killed, but his throat became permanently blue.

Shiva is one part of the Hindu triumvirate. The other two parts are Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, the preserver of it.

Today is considered by many to be the day Shiva married Parvati.

Shiva and Parvati
Shiva & Parvati

Shiva is at times ascetic, at others hedonistic. When Shiva was in one of his ascetic moods, Parvati tried seducing him but with little luck. The god of desire, Kama, was sent in on Parvati’s behalf to lure Shiva from his asceticism and ignite his more lustful side. Kama used the sounds and scents of spring at her disposal. It worked, but Shiva repaid Kama by burning him to ashes with his middle eye. [Caveat Matchmaker!] Shiva and Parvati were later married in a grand celebration. Kama was resurrected when Shiva embraced Parvati, and the sweat from her body mixed with Kama’s ashes.

According to legend, “their lovemaking is so intense that it shakes the cosmos, and the gods become frightened. They are frightened at the prospect of what a child will be like from the union of two such potent deities.”

The couple have a child named Ganesha, pictured with the trunk of an elephant. The three are often pictured together. Shiva and Parvati reflect the perfect balance of the universe. Parvati represents harmony in nature and the power to create and nourish.


(posted March 2008)

Saraswati: Original Supermom

5th day of the month of Magh

January 28, 2012

“India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.

Will Durant, The Case For India

In many religions throughout history women have been associated with wisdom and knowledge, which doesn’t explain why men have generally run the place, but may explain the state into which they’re run it.

The Greek goddess of wisdom was Athena. In the Gnostic tradition that honor belonged to Sophia, Mother of Creation, who is the root of our word sophistication. In Judaism it was Eve, not Adam, who ate first from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And in Christianity all the virtues, including Prudence are personified as women.

But in Hinduism, which influenced all of the above, the goddess of wisdom, arts, and learning is Saraswati. Saraswati is among other things the consort of Brahma, the god of creation.


In typical supermom style, Saraswati has four arms, all of which are full. Each arm symbolizes one of the four components of the human personality with regards to learning: mind, intellect, alertness and ego. She gracefully juggles a sacred manuscript in one hand, a rosary in another, and with the other two she plays music of life and love on a stringed instrument known as a veena. She is usually pictured sitting atop a lotus flower, with a peacock or a swan by her feet.

On the fifth day of the fortnight after the new moon of Magh, Hindus celebrate Vasant Panchami, to worship the Goddess Saraswati. It falls in late January or early February.

On this day young schoolchildren learn their first words, in honor of the goddess of learning, knowledge and speech.

Saraswati is invoked as a muse by artists conducting creative endeavors. In olden times Saraswati was invoked prior to a play by theater managers who prayed for the quick and articulate tongues of their actors.

“India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.”

Mark Twain

Pongal – Day 3 – Mattu Pongal

January 16

Mattu Pongal, the third day of the Pongal festival of southern India, is dedicated to the animals of the world, particularly cattle.

The legend goes, Shiva told his bull Basava, or Nandi, to inform the people of the world that they should eat once a month and bathe daily with an oil massage.

Evidently, Bull was not the best messenger. He told the people to eat daily and bathe once a month.

When Shiva heard this he was furious, so he forced Bull to return to earth and help the people plow, where he’s been ever since. That way they’d have food enough to eat each day.

There’s a belief in western society that Indians “worship” the cow. This is a misconception, perhaps propagated by the activities on Mattu Pongal. On this day cows do get the royal treatment: they’re bowed down to, painted, decorated with care, and they are offered Pongal, the rice dish for which the festival gets its name. The cows are symbolic of all animals on earth.

But they are not worshipped in the English sense of the word. Cows are considered special in the sense that they cannot be slaughtered. Part of the reason for this is that the cows already give so much back to the people through their milk. Another historical, practical reason may have been that the killing of the best cows for their meat reduced the genetic diversity of the herd.

A third, more controversial theory is that in the Sanskrit of the Vedas the word Go, meant “light” or “sense” as well as “cow.” Thus, the phrase “Protector of the Brahmanas and the Light” was interpreted as “Protector of the Cow.” [But this sounds to me like the story of the Catholic priest who, after a life of being celibate (no sex), goes to up heaven and gets to read Jesus’s original instructions on how to live the life a priest. He’s furious when he reads the original translation: “A priest should be pure and celebrate.”]

At any rate, Holy Cow is misleading. More like “Venerated Cow.” As Gandhi put it:

“One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world.



Why is the cow sacred?





Diwali – Deepavali

October 26, 2011

November 5, 2010

October 17, 2009

October 28, 2008

“Since the light of intelligence (Varhamana Mahavira) is gone,
let us make an illumination of the material matter.”

On the darkest evening in the month of Ashvin (October/November), Hindus around the world fill the night with candles, lamps and firecrackers to celebrate the Festival of Lights known as Diwali.

Diwali, or Deepavali, means literally, a row of lamps. Deep meaning lamp or light, avali meaning array.)

These lights are ubiquitous during Diwali, symbolizing the victory of Inner Light over Darkness.

The third and most auspicious day of the five-day celebration falls on the new moon of the month of Ashvin.

The legends that different regions cite as the origin of Diwali are too various to recount them all.

In the north of India, Hindus celebrate Diwali as the return of the ancient King Rama to his home in Ayodhya after 14 years in exile. The Prince Rama had been forced into exile by his stepmother, Queen Keykayee, who wanted her own son to inherit the throne.

In exile, Rama’s wife Sita was abducted by the ten-headed demon Ravana, who took her back to his kingdom in Sri Lanka. Rama built a bridge from the tip of India to Sri Lanka, slayed Ravana, and returned with his wife to their homeland. The people of Ayodhya were so anxious for his return, lamps were lit all across the nation to welcome him home.

In the South, Hindus recall the defeat of the powerful Narakasura by Lord Krishna and his wife Sathyabhama, as recorded in the Puranas.

Diwali is associated with the rice harvest. One of the most popular Diwali treats is a pounded semi-cooked rice dish known as Poha.

The second and third days are traditional times to invoke the goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort and the goddess of light, beauty, and prosperity. Women sweep and clean the house to allow Lakshmi a clear path of access. One staple of Diwali is the lighting of firecrackers, but Hindus are careful not to do so during aarti, (ie. invoking the goddess). For Lakshmi prefers tranquility and peace, so a small bell works better than the a loud clap preferred by other gods.

Lakshmi, Goddess of Good Fortune
Lakshmi, Goddess of Good Fortune

Diwali is considered the New Year and one of the holiest days in the Jain religion. It’s known as Maharvira Nirvana, in honor of the moment the great Mahavira reached Nirvana at age 71.

Celebrants take ritual oil-baths during the festival, symbolic of the cleansing of the soul, in the hopes of a prosperous new year.

“…On this day of Dipavali we worship the Supreme God who is the source of all conceivable virtues, goodness and prosperity, which is symbolised in illumination, lighting and worship in the form of Arati and gay joyous attitude and feeling in every respect.”

Swami Krishnananda


Regional Names and Traditions of Diwali in India

Lakshmi Puja

Lord Mahavira’s Nirvana

Navami & Dashami

October 5-6, 2011

Maha Navami

According to an 1815 French text…

“Maha-navami, known also under the name of Dasara, [is] specially dedicated to the memory of ancestors. This feast is considered to be so obligatory that it has become a proverb that anybody who has not the means of celebrating it should sell one of his children in order to do so.”

Okay—celebrants don’t actually sell off the kids to honor to celebrate, but the holiday is a big deal in India (especially Bengal) as well as parts of Nepal, Bhutan, and other countries with Bengal populations.

Also, Maha-navami isn’t the name of the whole celebration. Navami means ninth day, and refers to the ninth and penultimate day of the Durga Puja festival. It’s observed in different ways throughout the subcontinent.

Maha-navami falls right after Maha-ashtami (eighth day) and opens with Sandhi Puja, the ritual that recalls Durga’s defeat over Mahishasura’s two generals, Mundo and Chando.


The following day, Dashami, is a sadder occasion, as worshippers of Durga try to postpone the inevitable.

Dashami is the day when Goddess Durga accompaning her children sets for Kailash, her husband’s abode. With a heavy heart the Bengalis immerse the clay idol of Durga in the sacred Ganges bidding her goodbye and earnestly waiting to see her again the next year…


Durga Puja – the Morning After (The Ecological Impact)

Durga Puja – Bengal

Durga Puja is the largest celebration of Bengal and Bangladesh, and is also celebrated throughout Bhutan, and Nepal. It worships the mother goddess Durga, who was called into existence by the trinity of Hindu gods, Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, to defeat the demon Mahishasura.

According to legend, Shiva gave the once-loyal Mahishasura a power that he would later regret: that Mahishasura would not be killed by any man.

Confident he could never be stopped, Mahishasura went all maniacal on the lesser gods (Devtas) and plunged the Universe into havoc.  The gods pleaded with Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. The three created the only thing that could stop Mahishasura: an all-powerful goddess.

Durga was made from the best of all gods:

Her face reflected the light of Shiva,
her ten arms were from Lord Vishnu,
her feet were from Lord Brahma,
the tresses were formed from the light of Yama, the god of death
and the two breasts were formed from the light of Somanath, the Moon God,
the waist from the light of Indra, the king of gods,
the legs and thighs from the light of Varun, the god of oceans
and hips from the light of Bhoodev (Earth),
the toes from the light of Surya (Sun God),
fingers of the hand from the light of the Vasus, the children of Goddess river Ganga
and nose from the light of Kuber, the keeper of wealth for the Gods.
The teeth were formed from the light of Prajapati, the lord of creatures,
the Triad of her eyes was born from the light of Agni, the Fire God,
the eyebrows from the two Sandhyas,ie, sunrise and sunset,
the ears from the light of Vayu, the god of Wind.


The gods then armed her to the teeth (which as we know, were Prajapati’s) and she proceeded to kick the surprised Mahishasura’s butt. Since that day, Durga has symbolized the unity of the forces of good over those of wickedness.

Durga Puja lasts almost a fortnight, beginning on the 12th of Aashin in the Bengla calendar (September 29 in 2008), but doesn’t really get kicking until the 18th of Aashin (October 5 this year) and lasts four or five days:

October 2008 (Aashin 1415)

October 3 (evening) to October 4: Maha Panchami

October 4/5: Maha Shashti

October 5/6: Maha Saptami

October 6/7: Maha Ashtami

October 8: Maha Navami

October 9: Dashami

Today’s Maha Shashti is “the sixth day of the moon when Goddess Durga is welcomed with much fanfare and gusto. Look for the ‘Bodhon’ rituals when Goddess Durga is unveiled.” –http://www.durgapujagreetings.com/nirghonto.html

Though the religious aspects of the festival are still strong, Durga Puja has become a cultural and community celebration in recent decades.

Ganesh Chaturthi

September 1, 2011
September 19, 2012
September 9, 2013

Today Hindus celebrate the birthday of the Colossus with the Proboscis, Lord Ganesh, aka Gajanana (Elephant-Faced Lord), aka Devendrashika (Protector of All Gods), aka Kaveesha (Master of Poets), aka Lambodara (Huge Bellied Lord) aka Vignavinashanaya (Destroyer of All Obstacles and Impediments) aka Akhurath (One who has Mouse as His Charioteer) or any of the other 101 names he goes by.

Ganesh: Colossus with the Proboscis

Ganesh is perhaps the most distinctive-looking deity of the Hindu pantheon. His birth was as unconventional as his profile.

While Lord Shiva was away at war, his wife Parvati sought to bathe herself, but feared someone might enter while she was vulnerable. To guard her door, she fashioned the model of a son out of clay or sandalwood paste, breathed life into him, and placed him outside with instructions not to let anyone in.

It just so happened that Lord Shiva came back from the battlefront while Pavarti was bathing. Ganesh didn’t know who he was and prevented Shiva from entering. Shiva, after a hard day of battling demons, was not in the mood to be stopped in his own house. With his sword he sliced Ganesh’s head clean off.

Needless to say, when Parvati came out of the bath to find her new son decapitated, she was quite perturbed with Shiva, and threatened to destroy the three worlds of Earth, Heaven, and Hell.

Like any good husband, Shiva instructed his men to go out and bring back the head of the first living creature they found. They came back with the head of an elephant, which Shiva placed atop Ganesh’s decapitated body and with a sacred breath, made him whole.

Ganesh became the great Protector, and also the bringer of good fortune and prosperity.

People celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi with a festival lasting ten to twelve days. Large and small clay and metal models of Genash are created for the festival, sometimes 20 feet tall. Sacred traditional foods are offered to the god, including lotus flowers, fruits, sweets, and prasadam. At the end of the ten days, Ganesh’s likenesses are taken in a procession to the nearest body of water and submerged.

Submersion of Lord Ganesh
Submersion of Lord Ganesh

These days most idols of Lord Ganesh are made with Plaster of Paris rather than clay. Unfortunately, this  creates a toxic hazard when thousands of idols are submerged in local rivers and lakes on the final day of celebration. Indian activists try to combat, or at least mitigate the pollution by encouraging observers to perform short, symbolic submersions, or to return to tradition, natural materials like clay.